Professor Lang has developed an unusual plan to explore the life of an unusual writer. Modeling the approach in part on one of Levi’s books, Lang begins with a chapter called “The End” and concludes with one called “The Beginning” followed, naturally, by “Preface.” This somewhat playful strategy enacts Lang’s concern with possible confusions of chronology and causality. It allows him, as well, to guide us with proper tentativeness through such issues as whether or not Levi would have become an author without the experience of surviving the Holocaust.
The inside chapters, the meat of the meal, consider “The War,” “Writing,” “The Jewish Question,” and “Thinking.” Lang provides the necessary wartime context for understanding the exceptional situation of Italy and of Italian Jews before, during, and after World War II. He also examines the transition in Levi’s professional identity from chemist (chemical engineer and chemical plant manager) to writer. In this discussion, he underscores Levi’s insistence that the scientific and artistic modes are not adversarial. Lang sees Levi as feeling his way into a balancing act. While the precision and clarity necessary in scientific work find their way effectively into Levi’s prose style, perhaps his poetry is handicapped by literalism.
For Levi, not just his biographer, the question of Jewish identity is problematic. Certainly Primo Levi can be identified as a Jewish writer: the issue is whether this identification is confining or liberating. Levi’s political leanings were universalist rather than nationalist. This other balancing act, between particularity and universality, Lang also examines with zest and subtlety. This is especially true in “Thinking,” the chapter in which Lang attempts to locate Levi within (or just outside of) the role of moral philosopher.
In calling attention to and assessing the variety of genres that Levi explored, Levi’s original cast of mind, the many contradictions in Levi’s own assertions or recollections about important issues, and other intriguing matters, Berel Lang has given us a fresh vision of a fascinating and rather mysterious figure. Fortunately, he has not abolished the mystery, but rather fully respected it. Chronology, index, list of Levi’s books, notes.
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Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.